The Ukrainian war has dramatically lessened Russian political influence in Central Asia, which also makes the region a prey to other rising powers – China and Turkey. The five Central Asian states are still elaborating their new subregional architecture, but the risks of Western secondary sanctions could shake their fragile geopolitical twine.
The first high level signal of a new geopolitical reality came last September at the St Petersburg’s Economic Forum, when Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, openly stated in the presence of Russian president Vladimir Putin that Kazakhstan will never recognize “quasi-states“ created by the Kremlin in eastern Ukraine and the Caucuses. This produced a bombshell when it comes to rethinking Central Asia’s new geopolitical role, which would have been unthinkable or suicidal before the Ukrainian war erupted. But the new circumstances left no choice for the Kremlin but to swallow this bitter pill.
A few months later, on Oct. 8, the presidents of Turkey, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan confirmed the creation of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) formerly known as the Turkic Council, declaring a common desire to strengthen their mission of uniting brotherly nations. Turkish president Recep Erdogan is the main driver of the pan-Turkic idea, especially now, prior to the Turkish presidential election on May 14, where Turkey’s economic performance and his government’s allegedly “inefficient” response to the tragic earthquake last February mar his chances. No wonder the OTS held another extraordinary summit in Ankara on March 16, where five presidents announced the creation of “Disaster and Emergency Fund” to help Turkey, but eventually publicly showed their full political support to Erdogan.
If Erdogan wins the upcoming election, strengthening the unity of the Turkic World will undoubtedly gather steam due to two main drivers — developing new transit routes from Central Asia to Europe, now bypassing Russia, and fostering hidden interests of Central Asian states to secure Turkish support like Azerbaijan, which was victorious in its conflict with Armenia thanks to Turkish backing.
Cooperation between Turkic states is closely watched by another key player in Central Asian politics – China. This is not only because of its eruptive Western province of Xinjiang, previously geographically known as “Eastern Turkestan”. Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan, has become important to China due to the supply of gas and oil, which account for over 12% of the total Chinese imports of hydrocarbons and will likely increase further. Besides, Central Asia provides railway transit of Chinese exports to Europe, the shortest option available which is six times faster than by sea.
Chinese interests in Central Asian go far beyond mere political support. In fact, we are witnessing a new geopolitical reality, as was expressed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping last September during his first foreign visit after the Covid-19 pandemic. On the way to Tashkent, where Xi planned to meet Putin within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit, the Chinese leader made a demonstrative stopover in Astana and announced China’s support for Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty — a strong unmistakable message targeted at the Kremlin.
China’s interests have already made it the largest trade partner and lender to the governments of most Central Asian countries. This might put some restraints on how deep pan-Turkic trends might go, but removing any border hurdles positively impacts Chinese exports to Europe and revives the glorious times of the Silk Road.
Closer cooperation of key Central Asian states, plus Azerbaijan in the Caucasus and Turkey, in whatever form it might take, is supported by the Western countries as well. In the last several months, a whole array of top Western politicians paid visits to Astana and Tashkent, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. The region has not received this level of international attention in the last decade. The purpose of the visits was, of course, to understand the direction of Central Asia without Russia, as the northern neighbor loses its grip on the region.
This support might come at a cost though – according to recent information from Bloomberg, many sanctioned goods are coming into Russia via Turkey and Kazakhstan. Last week, the Daily Telegraph reported that it is increasingly likely that secondary sanctions will be imposed if no effective measures are taken.
The Government of Kazakhstan immediately backed up its commitment not to break sanctions by introducing new online transiting goods monitoring systems from April 1. Turkey has already tightened customs controls with Russia following demands from the West. An open question remains regarding Kyrgyzstan, which is actively developing new trade routes to Russia bypassing Kazakhstan and is notorious for weak customs controls. It may therefore become a likely subject of secondary sanctions.
The key question is also how far the West could go if it decided to impose secondary sanctions. Considering that the EU has already done most of what it could do against Russia, the next step would be to enforce the sanctions with all of Russia’s neighbors. Central Asian countries would eventually need to take tough decisions, having open borders with Russia as members of the Eurasian Economic Union. The tougher the secondary sanctions, the more Central Asian states will look to their eastern neighbor. China, meanwhile, is ready to embrace them, thus breaking the current geopolitical twine of Central Asia between East and West.
[Image courtesy president.uz]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is a former career diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kazakhstan. His diplomatic postings included Kazakh embassies in Seoul, New Delhi and London.